2011-12 Season Summary:
When New Orleans dealt superstar Chris Paul last offseason, the franchise knew it would experience a transition period. However, that transition was even more painful than anticipated; literally painful. Injuries riddled the roster this past season as only the New Jersey Nets had more players miss games due to injury than the Hornets, which ended up finishing with the third-worst record in the NBA.
The most impactful loss was Eric Gordon, the key piece of the Paul deal and expected cornerstone of that transition period. Gordon only played in nine games due to neck and back issues, and the team was unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension with him, which makes the talented shooting guard a restricted free agent this offseason.
Besides Gordon, a knee injury sidelined Emeka Okafor for 39 games. Key contributors Trevor Ariza, Chris Kaman, Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry, and Jason Smith combined to miss 110 games. Those injuries forced Gustavo Ayon, Greivis Vasquez, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Marco Belinelli into primary roles which explains why the team only won 21 games.
Perhaps the most important news for the Hornets is that they finally found a new owner. The league held control of the franchise for sixteen months until Saints owner Tom Benson purchased the team to help assure it would remain in the Big Easy. Finally being released from the grasp of league ownership, the franchise will enter a new era under Benson beginning with a franchise name like "Angels" or "Spirit" expected to replace "Hornets." A new breath of life is just what this organization needed. Now let's see if that can spark a quick turnaround with the product on the floor.
2012-13 Projected Depth Chart:
C: Jason Smith
PF: Gustavo Ayon
SF: Rashard Lewis/Al-Farouq Aminu
SG: *Eric Gordon/Xavier Henry
PG: Jarrett Jack/Greivis Vasquez
NBA Free Agents:
*SG-Eric Gordon (RFA)
C-Chris Kaman (UFA)
PF-Carl Landry (UFA)
SG-Marco Belinelli (UFA)
G-Jerome Dyson (UFA)
PF-Lance Thomas (UFA)
C-Darryl Watkins (UFA)
The Hornets acquire F Rashard Lewis and second-round pick (46th overall) from the Wizards for C Emeka Okafor and SF Trevor Ariza.
2012-13 Team Salary: Approximately $39.9 million
NBA Offseason Needs:
1. Extend Gordon:
As I mentioned earlier, Gordon and the Hornets were unable to agree to a contract extension during the season, making him a restricted free agent. I would imagine priority No. 1 for the new ownership will be locking up Gordon to a long-term deal despite his injury issues this past season. More than likely, New Orleans will match any offer sheet he may sign with another team.
Therefore, Gordon either signs an extension with the Hornets or plays out the final year of his rookie contract that will earn him about $5.1 million and becomes an unrestricted free agent next season. If the latter happens, New Orleans will have to consider trading Gordon rather than risk losing him next offseason and getting nothing in return.
2. Power Forward:
Jason Smith and Gustavo Ayon give the Hornets decent depth at power forward, but neither is truly a starting-caliber player. With Carl Landry a free agent, the team should be in search for a long-term solution at power forward. That is why I think Kansas' Thomas Robinson would be the ideal draft pick with New Orleans likely top-four selection.
3. Draft Wisely:
With two lottery picks, the Hornets have a terrific opportunity to add a pair of young, talented players and help accelerate their rebuilding effort. The last two times the franchise picked in the top 10, it ended up with Chris Paul and Baron Davis. Hitting a home run with both of its picks and not selecting some guy who is out of the league in three years (i.e. Julian Wright) is certainly not an exact science, but capitalizing on the opportunity will be vital for the future of the team.
4. Amnesty Okafor?:
Emeka Okafor is due more than $28 million over the next two seasons. That's an obscene amount of money for someone who has averaged 10 points and nine rebounds per game in his three seasons in New Orleans. Add in his nagging knee injury and the Hornets might want to use their one-time amnesty clause on Okafor, which would save them a ton of cap space.
5. Another Big:
If Okafor is amnestied, this becomes a major need. Even if Okafor does return, the Hornets will look to add another center to replace free agent Chris Kaman and also provide insurance in case Okafor can't stay healthy.